Large support group helping form Kiski Area’s fledgling unified track and field team

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Monday, February 27, 2023 | 11:10 AM


Kiski Area’s Sammy Plazio qualified for the PIAA cross country championships last fall as a freshman, an experience he described as “really awesome.” Now, he’s helping to pave the way for other Kiski athletes to pursue their dreams of competing for a state title.

Plazio is among those supporting the school’s efforts to form a unified track and field team, which brings together students with and without disabilities. As a member of the Cavaliers varsity track team, he is not eligible to compete with the unified squad. But Plazio is raising funds for the fledgling program by participating in the Pittsburgh Polar Plunge, which was scheduled Feb. 24-25 at Acrisure Stadium. Participants in the annual Special Olympics benefit event gather sponsorship pledges before jumping into a pool of chilly water.

“My mom asked if I wanted to support the unified track team and do the polar plunge, and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Plazio said. “It’s something new. I love track and want to share that with other people.”

As part of the Special Olympics Pennsylvania Interscholastic Unified Sports (IUS) program, a unified track and field team is co-ed and consists of a proportional number of high school students who are Special Olympics eligible and students without intellectual disabilities. The team typically has between 12 and 30 participants who wear uniforms with the school’s name and colors.

Team members select one track event (100, 400 or 800 meters) and one field event (shot put, running long jump or mini-javelin). They also may be selected to run in either the 400- or 1,600-meter relay. In competition, they are placed in heats with other athletes who have similar qualifying times or distances. Based on their place of finish, students earn points for their unified team.

When approached about fielding a unified team, Kiski Area jumped at the opportunity, said Chad Roland, high school principal.

“We all loved the idea,” he said. “We’re pretty excited for the spring.”

Kiski has leaned on Tom Berzonsky, who coaches the Cavaliers varsity cross country and track and field teams, to kick start the program.

“Tom has been doing a great job spearheading the mission,” said Roland, who also singled out the efforts of athletic director John Peterman.

About 90 schools across Pennsylvania have unified track and field teams, Berzonsky said.

“Being a first-year program, it’s a challenge in how to get things started,” he said. “We learned from some local schools like Hempfield and Norwin. They’ve been doing this for a lot longer than we have. They had a conference through Special Olympics, and we were able to talk to some of those coaches.”

Katie Hepler, a teacher at Kiski Area Upper Elementary School, has agreed to coach the team.

“She’s very excited about being part of it,” Roland said. “We’re looking for athletes who don’t run track but would be willing to do the events in a unified meet.”

Right now, the district has about a dozen students signed up for the team.

“It’s OK for us to start off with some small numbers and then try to build the program from there,” Berzonsky said.

The unified track and field season runs from early March through late May, with teams practicing after school twice a week. Kiski Area is scheduled to compete in three meets in its inaugural season.

“We’ll host one of the meets at the high school track, and then we’ll go away for the other competitions,” Roland said.

While Plazio can’t run with the unified team, he is interested in supporting the program in other ways.

“I’m looking to see if I can go help at the meets,” he said. “We do have a lot of track students who know how a meet is run. … We’re looking for volunteers. We’re looking for people who want to be part of the program.”

Unified teams participate in county and regional championships with the opportunity to advance to the IUS track and field state championships held in conjunction with the PIAA finals. Berzonsky has attended the state meet, and called it a “great experience” for the unified participants.

“The kids are competing. They’re getting a time,” he said. “Now it doesn’t count toward team scores as far as the PIAA championship is concerned. But I think the kids appreciate having the audience and spectators. As they say: ‘At the state championships, they’re all champions.’ ”

The Armstrong and Indiana school districts also are forming unified track and field teams this spring, Berzonsky added. Roland said Burrell School District sponsors a unified bocce team.

“It’s growing every year,” Roland said. “It’s such a great idea.”

Berzonsky stressed the unified concept transcends more than athletics.

“We want to create an inclusive environment for all kids, and that’s one of the goals of the program,” he said.

Anyone interested in helping with the Kiski Area unified team can contact Roland at chad.roland@kiskiarea.com.

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